Speaking Truth to Power: Meet Joyce McMillan, One of My New Heroes

Meet Joyce McMillan: Making Connections at the Intersections of Child Welfare and Criminal Justice Reform Advocacy for Families

There is no one happier to be working as an advocate for families than Joyce McMillan. For her, heading up advocacy for the Child Welfare Organizing Project (CWOP) in New York City is a dream come true, and Joyce is making the most of her position every day. Joyce is as connected a parent advocate as I have met.  She’s also a master at seizing opportunities to build even more relationships and strengthen her community-building alliances.  Beneath her extreme modesty and constant desire to learn from others—as she navigates challenging systems and complex relationships—I’ve noticed a powerful mind and an open heart. Don’t let Joyce fool you: she knows what she’s doing and she’s in the family advocacy world for the long haul.  

 

Unlike some of the advocates I’ve previously profiled and will continue to feature here, Joyce hasn’t been associated with her organization, CWOP, or with child welfare advocacy for families for years on end. She’s been affiliated with CWOP for just four years and in its leadership for just two years.  But in this short time, she has quickly made her mark, raising the profile of CWOP’s work at the local, state and national level. Thanks to Joyce’s tireless work, she has elevated interest in the plight of families caught in the child protection system’s clutches, and often in intersecting systems involving police, prison, poverty and the child welfare system. 

I have gotten the chance to know Joyce and work with her closely through United Family Advocates’ steering committee, which she joined in a few months ago.  My first extended conversation with her happened in April 2016 at the CUNY Law School “Other Defenders’ Conference”—the first-ever law school conference on family defense, though I had been introduced to her at a previous conference. She presents herself immediately as someone ready to listen, but pretty soon into the conversation, she starts to share her wisdom. After meeting her at the CUNY conference, I wanted to get to know her better and over the past few months, I have been fortunate to have had that chance.

Even though she works closely with other parents at CWOP who have told their stories at public events or in writing for Rise Magazine, and even though she does extensive public speaking these days, Joyce hasn’t told her own story in print or in any extended speaking or personal profile. When I suggested that this profile/interview could serve as a way to build even more connections between the issues of mass incarceration and child welfare, she welcomed that idea. It is my hope, therefore, that this profile/interview can serve such a purpose, for child welfare reform needs more Joyce McMillan’s to shine a light on the mistreatment of families in the terrible systems that she is seeking to change. If Joyce McMillan became a more public face for child welfare reform, that would be all to the good, in my opinion,  for she is a most articulate, thoughtful and exemplary spokesperson.

Diane: Joyce, thank you for agreeing to let me profile you. But I know so little about what you experienced with the child welfare system and your own family life that I’m almost embarrassed to ask.

Joyce:  Please don’t be shy! I’m happy to tell my own story. In fact, unlike a lot of the families I have worked with and advocate for, I didn’t come from a family that had any history of child welfare involvement. My own story involved with child protection started before the birth of my second child, and she’s already 19 years old—so it’s a long and involved personal story.  My journey into advocacy comes from my growing awareness as to how this system was operating in my community. I hadn’t studied that—I worked at a bank at the time child protection came into my life. And since my own family had never had child welfare involvement, I really didn’t know how the system operated until I experienced it first-hand. 

Diane: It sounds like the intervention of the child welfare system affected your younger child more directly than your older child.  You’ve mentioned that you are still coping with that separation. Can you tell me what that separation and reunification process was like with her?

Joyce:  My younger child Kaylah was removed when she was three months old. She was returned to me when she was two and a half years old.  After she returned home, she was very defiant. I was afraid to share the difficulties I was experiencing because I was afraid she would be removed from me again. It took many years of counseling for reconciliation—in fact, we really had a breakthrough just eighteen months ago. Many years after she returned home, I learned that she thought I had “stolen” her from her family, which was the foster family.  That’s how she saw it. That’s why she was so angry at me and why we had such a hard time bonding, why her behavior was so challenging for me, and so hurtful to her own development too. After returning home, she was diagnosed with oppositional-defiant disorder—a disorder that fits her experience of being traumatized by the foster care system--and I struggled for years with her behaviors. It was very hard for me. Now that we began our process of bonding, she is leaving for college in August.

Once Kaylah was removed, it was impossible to create a real mother-daughter bond with her.  Effectively, my two hours of visits, once a week, added up to seeing her four days out of a year.  That’s not a meaningful amount of time to have a relationship with a baby, an infant, or a toddler—or any child for that matter.

I’m not suggesting that children like my daughter should stay in foster families.  I am advocating for meaningful preventive services to keep the family intact with proper supports to help them thrive. Two hours of contact once a week is not enough time to create a bond.

Diane:  What about your older child? Where was she while you were going through the separation and reunification with your younger daughter?

Joyce:   My older daughter Courtnie is 27 now. She was nine at the time Kaylah was removed. Courtnie had gone to live with her dad and he returned her home to me about six months before the court ordered Kaylah to come home. Since Courtnie never was in foster care with non-family members, and because she was older, we had a strong bond, so the reunification process with her was not as difficult.

Diane:  How did child protective services get involved in the first place?  Do you know who called the hotline?

Joyce:  I don’t know who made that call, which had something to do with an unsubstantiated allegation that I wasn’t properly caring for the kids. Then I was asked to submit to a urine screen and I didn’t know I had a right to refuse, so then the case became all about my use of cocaine. That use was a recreational thing for me at the time. There was no immediate danger to my child from my use right then. There had been one call before Kaylah was born but nothing much came of it.  Still, my life was pretty together at the time of the hotline call that led to her removal. I had my own place to live; I had a car; I had a job at a bank. I also had a stable family—as I mentioned, none of my cousins, uncles or aunts had child protective services in their lives.

Unfortunately, I truly believe that the intervention of child protective services caused the worsening of the problem the system was trying to prevent. My use went from recreational to a needed medication, a dependency. After my child was taken from me, with the second Hotline call coming around the time of her birth, I went into a real fog, unable to think clearly.

There was no effort at that time to keep the family intact and my experience is that there are barely any such efforts to this day. Today, the OCFS (the state oversight agency Office of Children and Family Services) website states that 39% of children are removed without any attempt to provide preventive services. 

Diane: You said the problem got worse before it got better. What happened?

Joyce: After I went into full-blown addition, I did go into a treatment program but I didn’t do well there. The program was punitive. They humiliated people there.  So I left the treatment program.

Then I was arrested. It was a setup—an undercover cop gave me some money to buy drugs for him and me. I was in jail for nine months and during that time I didn’t see my baby girl at all. Then the judge said I could be released to a program but I kept going AWOL. Then the judge told me he didn’t care if I was in a program or out of a program, if I had another dirty drop I would have to do five years in prison. When the judge told me that, I was pushed back into treatment.

The foster mother was asked if she would adopt my daughter and she said yes. The agency had told her I wasn’t getting my daughter back. The foster mother would miss visits or bring Kaylah to visits late.  She really wanted to adopt her.

Diane:  How did you get through the addiction?

Joyce.  It was a decision on my part, a commitment I made to myself and my family.  I was self-medicating and numbing my feelings but when I came through the daze I was able to face reality. I felt alienated from family and friends and I wanted their acceptance. I'm lucky to have the family support I had. I know many parents don’t have that as a motivator, unfortunately.

At first and for quite a while into my case, I had some attorneys who did not really help me—they were part of the system that was keeping me in limbo, unable to get the help I really needed to get my baby back. But then suddenly everything changed when Brooklyn Legal Services was appointed to my case.

When I left treatment I got into a nice shelter through Women’s Prison’s Association. It was an excellent organization. I was able to get a two-bedroom apartment in the shelter that set up for family reunification. I was able to have visits there and didn’t feel threatened by staff, but was supported in having my visits with my daughter.

Suddenly I discovered I had amazing legal representation. Lauren Shapiro and Jennifer Light were my attorneys. They were absolutely fantastic! I had a social worker there too; she was also phenomenal. It’s still not clear to me how I got this team.  They were amazing!

Lauren was so innovative. She actually got the caseworker to show up to my visits and documented how she was causing me to missing my visits after I had complained about the foster parent’s misconduct. Soon the caseworker saw for herself that the foster parent was late, sometimes by as much as 45 minutes, and so the foster parent stopped being late. Lauren’s work made the system accountable.

Jennifer Light worked with Lauren and she was terrific too.  She would counsel me about what I should worry about and what I didn’t need to worry about.  Parents can easily get confused—sometimes parents think they need to fight about too much in order to get their children returned, and that hostility gets in the way of the system working with them.  I listened to Jennifer and that helped me focus on what I needed to do.

Diane:  Did you have a private agency caseworker? What was your interaction with the caseworker(s) like?

Joyce:  There was a private agency—St. Vincent’s—assigned.  My particular caseworker was awful: mean and evil.  She did not hold the foster parent accountable for sabotaging my reunification with my daughter—and that’s why it made such a difference when Lauren got involved with my case.  Before then, if the foster parent was late or canceled visits, my visit was never made up.  If I complained, my visits would be suspended. I didn’t miss a visit—I went religiously, once a week each Wednesday from 11 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. My daughter was placed a half an hour away from me and all the visits had to be supervised at the office. My daughter was two years old when I started getting visits at Women’s Prison Association.

Once I took Courtnie with me to visit Kaylah and the case manager from St. Vincent’s said that I wasn’t allowed to have her with me.  They tried to take her from me. They called the police but I wasn’t having it. The police said that since her dad had custody, my being with her was at his discretion.

Diane:  What were the grounds alleged against you in the child protection case—was it neglect due to substance use?

Joyce:  Yes, it was entirely about drug use. But to be honest, I still don’t really know what exactly was alleged against me.

Before my daughter was removed, there were zero reasonable efforts to help me keep her in my care. And really, I had to take the initiative myself to get clean. While things turned around for me after the Brooklyn Defenders got involved, I took the first steps.    

Diane: Were you prepared to have her back? 

Joyce: Not at all. My daughter was traumatized, and since I didn’t understand trauma, I thought she was a terror when she came home. And she stopped talking. She bit, punched, screamed, and cried. She was very slow to potty-train; she had reverted because she had been starting to be potty-trained at the time she returned to me. She was very traumatized and so was I.  But I didn’t talk about it—I kept it a secret because I was so afraid she would be taken again. Courtnie was already back with me. My ex-husband had returned her; she hadn’t been in foster care. She had stayed home with me and then my baby was returned.

Diane:  I’m amazed you managed all of this given the lack of support and the harassment you were getting. How were you supporting yourself and your children?

Joyce: I was fortunate the apartment was provided by the Women’s Prison Association. (By the way, I just gave the keynote address for their 25th Anniversary, which was exciting to be able to do).  While I had worked for banks and brokerage houses before, when I got out of jail, it was hard to find employment and people really discouraged me, telling me I wouldn’t make it, saying that it was “hopeless.” At first, I got hired as an intern in a customer service position at Time-Warner. I interned without pay for a year—though I didn’t tell people it was all unpaid work. Then I got hired eventually. It was hard coming back to the shelter during that time.

The shelter had childcare available but I didn’t want to use it because I would have had to leave Kaylah there at 9:00 a.m. when I didn’t have to be at work until noon. I had missed so much time with her that I didn’t want to miss more. I heard about ACS child-care vouchers from the shelter director. I wanted time with my daughter.  So I was able to get childcare off-site.

Diane:  It sounds like you had a long process of trying to get help to repair your relationship with your daughter.  And you were trying very hard, but not necessarily getting the right help.

Joyce:  Yes, it felt very personal and I was isolated. I didn’t share what I was going through.

My daughter started running away at around age nine, then she became a habitual runaway when she was ten or so.  But she was not a street kid, just an angry kid.   She made friends at school with white kids in an affluent neighborhood and that’s where she would go—to their homes. Some white people want to be saviors, but on their own terms. And Kaylah would tell these parents stories—claiming she had my permission to stay the night.  As a result, I wouldn’t know where she was.  And these parents just believed her and didn’t check, making assumptions about me as a parent when in fact I would be frantic and trying to find her. Kaylah would tell whatever she thought they wanted to hear.

 

As a result of her running away, I kept having threats of child welfare coming back into my life.  Kaylah would tell stories and I’d be asked by child protection investigators, “What are you doing to her?” They would assume the worst of me. I had them asking me for drug drops, which I refused. That was humiliating. Plus, every issue she had I believed was caused by the child welfare system’s intervention.

I found child welfare investigators kept coming back into life.  Some of it was just straight racism. I wasn’t asked, “Why did you think child running away?” If she had been a white child running away, I think some help and understanding would have been offered. I got no help with afterschool care for her either. I did get my daughter into some counseling but I didn’t realize I needed counseling for myself as well. Finally, though, we got into therapy together.

I understand now how we were set up to fail. But it has taken until my daughter is almost ready for college for us to understand all of this.  (She’ll be enrolled at Fulton Montgomery Syracuse this fall).  Both she and I are starting to understand it all too, and how it relates to issues of how black families are treated, and how it relates to mass incarceration too.

Diane:  How did you end up connecting to CWOP?

Joyce: By 2014, I had gotten a better job—I was making a pretty good income. But Kaylah was being difficult.  I tried to get her into the school district where I was working but she wasn’t wanted there.

In the course of trying to get help for Kaylah, I met with the then-Borough Commissioner at the Administration for Child and Family for Manhattan, named William Fletcher.  I had another hotline call against me because of Kaylah’s behavior and I decided I needed to speak the Borough Commissioner to understand the purpose of the ACS agency. So I got to meet with the Borough Commissioner and as I was preparing for that meeting, I had the discovery that the harassment I was experiencing with ACS only affected my community—only families who looked like mine. I printed the data I had found.  I was completely disturbed and upset by it.  I had found out that the kids who were in the child welfare systems just came from certain zip codes. They were black families, not white ones. I asked him “Why are you targeting us?” and “Why are you coming after black parents when white ones have the same issues?” He already knew that data. I said to him, “You are a black guy so why are you doing that, why are letting them do this to our community?”

And so he was the one who suggested CWOP to me. I hadn’t heard of it. He was the one who said I’d make a great advocate.   guess not that many parents who had hotline calls against them come to him armed with data and asking pointed questions as I had done.

So I called about the CWOP program and I learned about CWOP’s parent leadership curriculum.

I had already decided to do an alcohol counseling program for my CASAC-T (counseling certification). That was something I decided to pursue after went to a weekend with Oprah on a full Saturday-Sunday program about “living as your best self.” I’ve been with CWOP since 2014.  

The leadership curriculum of CWOP focused on what parents are up against in the child welfare system. It was three to four months of training.  Then I was asked to be on the board and Sandra Killet, the Executive Director, asked me not to join the board because she said she wanted to hire me. I volunteered for two years. Then the board hired me as the office manager/parent advocate and quickly promoted me to Program Director.

Diane: What directions have you been pursuing in your role as the head of advocacy/program director for CWOP?

Joyce:  I have been focusing on trauma support and restorative practices. This is really my purpose in life. My life just couldn’t get any better. I learned a lot from Sandra about systemic injustices, the differences between punitive systems and restorative systems to remedy injustices. I’m all about working in the community, making connections.  

But my days are filled to the top with meetings, presentations, advocacy, networking, and training and strategizing. And I’m realizing that I have to practice self-care in order to keep going at this pace.  I know how important that is.

One big focus of mine is on the parallels between child welfare and mass incarceration.  The foster care system is a horrible incubator for incarceration. The links are there. We’re trying to expand awareness of this.  We’re getting more calls.

I started the speaker series at CWOP in February 2016. We had a program at the office for parents to speak and to talk about these parallels. Our office space got too small to hold the many people who wanted to attend. I received a visiting fellowship from the Center for New York City Affairs at the New School. And so I decided to move the series downtown. People told me it wouldn’t work—parents wouldn’t come downtown.  But each speaker series has sold out and ten parents from CWOP come each month.

There was so much excitement about the discussion.

Diane:  That’s something you can speak to so directly—how the War on Drugs has been a war against black people and their families. Your own story and the families you work with, along with the data, show the targeting is both through the child welfare system and the criminal justice system.

Joyce: I'm especially excited to be working now at the local, state and national policy level making these connections. This is what I love doing, and I’m just going to keep doing it.  I’m doing it for children like my own children who didn’t deserve to lose me as their parent. 

I’m grateful for the opportunities I now have and I want to keep fighting for families.

Diane: Joyce, its parent leaders like you who really inspire the rest of us in advocacy. I admire your commitment to justice for others and the wisdom you bring to this. I hope we can continue to work together for years to come. Thank you for doing this interview. Thank you for sharing your own story of your road from being a victim of the child welfare system to a very powerful advocate for change.

 

 Joyce McMillan and Marty Guggenheim at the first Family Defender Conference at a law school (CUNY, April 2016). 

Joyce McMillan and Marty Guggenheim at the first Family Defender Conference at a law school (CUNY, April 2016).